Wednesday June 23rd, 2021 1:07AM

‘In the Heights’ lifts hopes for a Latino film breakthrough

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Color. Dance. Music. Joy. An all Latino cast!

The hype for “In the Heights” has brought great expectation for Latinos in the United States, a group that’s been historically underrepresented and widely typecast in films. And with upcoming titles like “Cinderella” with Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” with Mexican star Salma Hayek and Steven Spielberg’s revival of “West Side Story,” this seems to be just the beginning of a string of productions that place Latinos front and center.

“In the Heights,” which opens Friday, is an adaptation of the Tony-award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about the hopes and struggles of residents of New York City’s Washington Heights. Directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), many hope it will mark a new beginning on the big screen for the largest minority group in the country — one that mirrors shifts that have already happened for Black and Asian actors and creators.

“You know, every decade there’s, ‘Is this movie gonna break through? Or is this particular music style gonna break through? Or this particular performer or singer? Are they gonna open the doors for a kind of explosion?’”, says Jimmy Smits, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “I think the dynamics right now in terms of where we are culturally, just in terms of our population, and the potential economic power that we have, ... the universe aligned in a nice way.

“You have this beautiful collage of people in the community,” says Smits, the star of “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing” who plays Kevin Rosario, a single father and the owner a taxi cab service, in “In the Heights.” “It’s the immigrant experience that’s been part of the fabric of this country since it started. And it’s positive. So we need that right now after the pandemic.”

John Leguizamo agrees.

“I think that ‘In the Heights’ is gonna be THE project that changes the whole thing finally,” says the Colombian-American actor and playwright, who started his career on film and television but, like Miranda, found a place to tell his stories — and validation of this work — on and off Broadway.

Leguizamo, who won a special Tony Award in 2018 for his commitment to bringing diverse stories and audiences to Broadway through his one-man shows including “Freak, “Ghetto Klown” and “Latin History for Morons,” says he’s been pitching stories to Hollywood for 30-plus years.

"I started to believe that maybe I don’t know how to write, maybe I just don’t know how to pitch, cause all my stories were rejected,” he says. “And then I started to realize, ‘Oh my God, it’s because it was Latin content!’ They didn’t know what to do with it.

"They weren’t rejecting my ability, there were rejecting my culture.”

He found success on the stage “because there aren’t any gatekeepers in theater,” he says. “I just needed to write something dope, get somebody to produce it and the audience was so hungry for it. They were dying to see themselves!”

About 60.6 million Hispanics live in the United States, the Census Bureau estimates. And many are devoted filmgoers: Latinos have consistently led the box office, reaching 29% of tickets sold, according to the latest Motion Picture Association report on theatergoers.

Yet they only represent 4.5% of all speaking or named characters and a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors, a 2019 study of 1,200 popular movies from 2007 to 2018 by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found.

Awards recognition, too, has been elusive. This year’s Oscars featured a diverse slate of nominees, but no Latino performers.

“I think our absence at the Oscars was appalling,” Leguizamo says. “(But) the Oscars is the symptom; the disease is Hollywood. We need more Latin executives making decisions.”

In 1951, Puerto Rican José Ferrer became the first Latino actor to receive an Academy Award for his leading role in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The same decade, Mexican-born Anthony Quinn got two for best supporting actor, for “Viva Zapata!” (1953) and “Lust for Life” (1957). Puerto Rican Rita Moreno became the first Latina to get the best supporting actress award in 1962 as Anita in “West Side Story.”

Since then, only one more Latino has been recognized in the supporting actor category: Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro for 2000’s “Traffic.” Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz got supporting roles awards in 2008 and 2009, for “No Country for Old Men” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” respectively. Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico, won the same prize in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave.”

No Latina has won best actress at the Oscars, and few have even been considered. Hayek was nominated for the English-language movie “Frida,” but other contenders competed for performances in foreign language films: Fernanda Montenegro for Brazil’s “Central Station,” Catalina Sandino Moreno for Colombia’s “Maria Full of Grace” and Yalitza Aparicio for Mexico’s “Roma.”

Rita Moreno, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner whose career spans seven decades, says she has seen huge progress for women and other minorities in Hollywood.

“What still concerns me mightily and profoundly is that Hispanics haven’t gotten their hold on our profession,” she says in an interview ahead of the release of the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” “I don’t know what the hell is wrong. I don’t know what is not working right. The Black community has done incredibly, and I have nothing but the deepest admiration for the Black professional community. They’ve done it. And I think we can take some lessons from them. But where is our ‘Moonlight’? Why are we not advancing?”

Moreno noted that Hispanic identity is often rooted in specific countries.

“It’s very complicated. People forget that we’re not just Hispanic,” she says. “Maybe the answer, or the beginning of the answer, lies in some kind of summit.”

At 89, and despite all the titles coming this year, she doesn’t expect to see this happen in her lifetime: “My age forbids it. But I sure as hell hope something happens. I can’t believe we’re still struggling the way we are.”

Behind the camera, many Latin American artists have been recognized at the Oscars in different areas, most recently and prominently “The Three Amigos” — Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, all Academy Award winning directors from Mexico.

Leguizamo, who has been very vocal about the lack of representation in Hollywood, includes them on the list of achievements: “They are from our culture and they are like us. I just wish it was easier to make it in America as a Latin artist.”

However, he says he’s seen an important change during the COVID-19 pandemic and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The studios woke up,” says Leguizamo, who is now in talks to direct a few projects, including one he's written. “I think everybody is making moves to change into being inclusive. I see it from small producers, directors in their offices, in their casting. I see it at Viacom. I see it at Univision. I see it at Netflix. I see it everywhere!”

Audiences will too, starting this summer with releases like Everardo Gout’s “The Forever Purge” with Ana de la Reguera (both Mexican); M. Night Shyamalan’s “OLD,” with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” with Benicio del Toro.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” set for December 10, includes a Latino cast this time around. Many “Puerto Ricans” in the original were white actors in brown makeup and, although widely successful, the 1961 movie was also criticized for portraying Latinos in a stereotypical way.

Beyond that, studios are working on a “The Father of the Bride” remake with music star Gloria Estefan alongside Andy Garcia (both Cuban-American.) “Encanto,” the first Walt Disney Animation Studios movie co-directed by a Latino woman, Charise Castro Smith, about a young Colombian girl who’s frustrated she’s the only member of her family without magical powers, is also premiering this year.

“It’s terrifying sometimes,” says Castro Smith, who is of Cuban descent, “but is also one of the reasons I decided to do this, because it means the world to me for little brown kids everywhere to get to see themselves and to see themselves represented in a positive way and feel seen.”

Anthony Ramos, who leads the cast of “In the Heights” as Usnavi, the character originally played by Miranda on the stage, says that “now is an incredible, beautiful moment where we can capitalize on Hollywood being receptive to what is naturally happening in the streets.”

He praised filmmakers like Spike Lee and movies like “Black Panther” for helping pave the way, and Miranda for “writing himself into history.”

Miranda, who became a superstar with the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and since then has been working also on TV and film, says “the way time has caught up to ‘In the Heights’, I think, is we have learned as people of color to build a coalition around ourselves and advocate for ourselves.”

“We’re part of a larger series of voices,” Miranda says. “I remember how important it was for me to go support ‘Black Panther’ opening weekend, to go and support ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ opening weekend, to vote with my wallet, to go and support ‘Minari’ opening weekend. If you want newer and richer stories beyond the ones you’ve heard, you vote with your wallet on that stuff.”


AP Film Writer Jake Coyle contributed to this report.


Follow Sigal Ratner-Arias on Twitter at

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Entertainment, AP Online Movies News, AP Online Recordings News, APOnline Celebrity News
© Copyright 2021
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Iran candidate says he’s willing to potentially meet Biden
An Iranian presidential candidate says he’d be willing to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden if he wins his country’s election next week
9:54AM ( 2 minutes ago )
The Latest: Coco Gauff says she plans to go to Olympics
Coco Gauff says she “definitely” plans to compete at the Tokyo Olympics after earning a spot on the U.S. team with her run to the French Open quarterfinals
9:48AM ( 7 minutes ago )
Russia expected to outlaw opposition leader Navalny's groups
A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
9:45AM ( 10 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Wedding boom is on in the US as vendors scramble to keep up
Couples in the U.S. are racing to the altar in a vaccination-era wedding boom that has venues and vendors in high demand
8:18AM ( 1 hour ago )
Biden ends GOP infrastructure talks, but new group emerges
President Joe Biden has ended talks with a group of Republican senators on a big infrastructure package and has started to reach out to senators in a new bipartisan effort
8:11AM ( 1 hour ago )
EU lawmakers OK virus pass, boosting summer travel hopes
European Union lawmakers have approved a new coronavirus travel certificate aimed at opening the 27-nation bloc up for the summer
7:22AM ( 2 hours ago )
AP National News
Gucci digitally outfits Gen-Z in metaverse foray with Roblox
Anyone whose virtual alter ego is wandering around the Roblox online game platform these days might run into other avatars sporting Gucci handbags, sunglasses or hats
3:24AM ( 6 hours ago )
Bus with migrant workers collides with van in India; 17 dead
Police say a bus carrying migrant workers after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions hit a delivery van on a highway in northern India, killing at least 17 people
12:48AM ( 9 hours ago )
EXPLAINER: The US investigation into COVID-19 origins
Once dismissed by most public health experts and government officials, the hypothesis that COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny under a new U.S. investigation
12:15AM ( 9 hours ago )
Top General short headlines
French non-fiction author Carrere wins top Spanish award
French author Emmanuel Carrere, popular for his non-fiction books written in a high literary vein, has been granted this year’s Princess of Asturias Literature Award
9:14AM ( 41 minutes ago )
'MeatEater' audiobook will be a collection of close calls
Nothing like a terrifying encounter with a brown bear on the island of Afognak, Alaska, to inspire an audiobook project featuring “MeatEater” host Steven Rinella
8:01AM ( 1 hour ago )
The Latest: Krejcikova downs Gauff, books SF spot in Paris
Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic has reached the French Open semifinals by defeating American teenager Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3
7:11AM ( 2 hours ago )
AP Entertainment
Q&A: Ellen Burstyn on her acting life, and never retiring
That Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who recoils at the very mention of a retirement community in the upcoming film “Queen Bees” is extremely appropriate
3:34PM ( 1 day ago )
Georgian director, screenwriter Gabriadze dies at 84
Rezo Gabriadze, a legendary Georgian theater director and film screenwriter who has won broad fame across the former Soviet Union for movies he wrote, has died
3:11PM ( 1 day ago )
‘Conjuring 3’ tops ‘A Quiet Place 2’ as moviegoing returns
After its triumphant first weekend, “A Quiet Place Part II” fell 59% at the North American box office leaving room for the third movie in the “Conjuring” franchise to take first place
1:31PM ( 2 days ago )
AP Online Movies News
Vinyl records surge during pandemic, keeping sales spinning
Music lovers sent vinyl record sales soaring during the pandemic, giving retailers something to cheer on Record Store Day
12:51PM ( 21 hours ago )
Carnegie Hall reopens in October after 19-month closure
Carnegie Hall will resume performances in October following a 1 1/2-year closure caused by the coronavirus pandemic but with a limited schedule of recitals and small ensembles until large orchestras return in January
12:02PM ( 21 hours ago )
ASCAP to honor Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and D-Nice
Three acts who kept music alive during the worldwide pandemic will be honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers later this month
10:12AM ( 23 hours ago )
AP Online Recordings News
Sheryl Underwood of 'The Talk' to host Daytime Emmys
Sheryl Underwood of “The Talk” will host the Daytime Emmy Awards on June 25
3:41PM ( 18 hours ago )
Kemper apologizes for role with group that had racist past
Actress Ellie Kemper has apologized for participating in a debutante ball hosted by a St_ Louis organization that she now says had “an unquestionably racist, sexist and elitist past.”
2:56PM ( 18 hours ago )
Duchess of Sussex's 'The Bench' celebrates fathers and sons
The first picture book by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is a multicultural tribute to fatherhood
2:37PM ( 19 hours ago )
APOnline Celebrity News
Iran candidate says he’s willing to potentially meet Biden
An Iranian presidential candidate says he’d be willing to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden if he wins his country’s election next week
9:54AM ( 2 minutes ago )
The Latest: Coco Gauff says she plans to go to Olympics
Coco Gauff says she “definitely” plans to compete at the Tokyo Olympics after earning a spot on the U.S. team with her run to the French Open quarterfinals
9:48AM ( 7 minutes ago )
Russia expected to outlaw opposition leader Navalny's groups
A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
9:45AM ( 10 minutes ago )
Biden to assure allies, meet Putin during 1st overseas trip
President Joe Biden is on his way to the United Kingdom, his first overseas trip in office
9:29AM ( 26 minutes ago )
Cicadas delay White House press ahead of Biden overseas trip
Reporters traveling to the United Kingdom ahead of President Joe Biden’s first overseas trip were delayed seven hours after their chartered plane was overrun by cicadas
9:27AM ( 29 minutes ago )